NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Vancouver Canucks

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Scott Cullen
6/13/2010 9:35:14 AM
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Back-to-back second-round playoff exits leave the Vancouver Canucks hungry for more postseason success.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a well-stocked Canucks roster and what they might be able to do to get over the hump.

The Canucks topped 100 points for the fifth time in the last five seasons, so there is little solace to take from regular-season success; the measure of this team is going to be what happens in the playoffs.

"It's a little too close to it, I think, to start assessing what went wrong," GM Mike Gillis told the Vancouver Sun at season's end. "But we had players who had career regular seasons and we didn't get the same performance in the playoffs and we have to figure out why. I think before we get to changes that need to be made we have to go through that evaluation."

There's little doubt that the Canucks have the talent, as the team with the second-most goals scored and fourth-best differential last season, to rank among the best teams in the league. But the team needs to be able to elevate its performance in the playoffs, when the games get tighter and disciplined play is more important.

For his part, Gillis thinks the Canucks could use some more playoff-tested experience in the lineup.

"We have very few guys who have gone far into the playoffs. We have a fairly young team," Gillis told the Sun. "You need experienced players who have been there, who don't deviate from the game plan when the pressure is on, they continue to be patient and play."

That gives the Canucks something to target in free agency, but that won't be the only way to make this team better for next season. Young forwards Cody Hodgson and Michael Grabner ought to have a very good chance of making the team and making a difference to the attack. Cory Schneider has earned his opportunity to spell Roberto Luongo in net.

Vancouver has the talent to be right back among the contenders next season and they're likely to have another strong regular season, only it won't really matter. A first-round win won't satisfy the desires of the team or its fan-base.

For all the talent the Canucks have, with more on the way to refresh the lineup, they ultimately need to play better when the games are the most difficult.

"We've made significant strides in the way I want us to play and have exceeded some expectations," Gillis told the Vancouver Provice. "But we clearly have work to do."

To paraprase a line from A League Of Their Own, it's not easy, but it's not supposed to be easy. If winning in the NHL playoffs was easy, everyone would do it.

GM/COACH
Mike Gillis/Alain Vigneault

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Henrik Sedin 96.85 $6.1M
Daniel Sedin 95.95 $6.1M
Alex Burrows 87.99 $2.0M
Ryan Kesler 85.25 $5.0M
Mikael Samuelsson 81.00 $2.5M
Steve Bernier 65.58 $2.0M
Rick Rypien 59.12 $550K
Darcy Hordichuk 56.41 $775K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Mason Raymond 76.03 RFA $883K
Pavol Demitra 69.87 UFA $4.0M
Kyle Wellwood 67.09 UFA $1.2M
Jannik Hansen 63.96 RFA $550K
Tanner Glass 63.32 RFA $500K
Ryan Johnson 57.89 UFA $1.15M

After the Sedin Twins signed long-term contracts with the Canucks last July 1, Henrik Sedin responded with the best season of his career, leading the league with 112 points, 30 more than his previous career high and set a career best with a plus-35 rating.

Henrik also took more initiative to shoot the puck, setting career bests in shots (168) and goals (29) as he played in all 82 regular season games for the fifth straight season.

Henrik's season was all the more impressive because Daniel Sedin missed 19 games, 18 of them due to a broken foot suffered early in the season. Despite missing that much time, Daniel tallied a career-high 85 points.

The brothers also combined for 28 points in 12 playoff games but, as team leaders, they will take criticism for the Canucks' back-to-back second-round playoff exits.

Riding shotgun with the twins, Alex Burrows had a career year with 35 goals, 67 points and a plus-34 rating. The agitating winger could stand to be more disciplined, yet he needs to play on the edge in order to remain effective and he's undeniably effective.

Ryan Kesler has improved steadily throughout his career and the 25-year-old scored a career-high 75 points last season, including 26 on the power play. Kesler's value, however, is tied to his ability as a relentless checker who can match up against opponents' top lines.

There was a prevailing thought that Mikael Sameulsson would be hard-pressed to make a difference when he left the security of Detroit, but all Samuelsson did in his first year with the Canucks was set career highs with 30 goals and 53 points (to say nothing of eight goals and 15 points in a dozen playoff games).

Even if expecting another 30-goal season is optimistic, Samuelsson does offer solid complementary offence as well as reliable two-way play.

Now 25, it appears unlikely that Steve Bernier is going to emerge as the scorer that had been expected when he was drafted 16th overall in 2005 and scored 14 goals in 39 games as a rookie, but he is a big, physical presence and, while he hasn't scored 20 goals in a season yet, that's still a possibility with the right linemates.

Injuries have slowed the development of energy forward Rick Rypien, but he got into 69 games last season and the 26-year-old made an impact as one of the game's most dangerous fighters, winning the majority of his 16 bouts. He still needs to improve his overall game, but Rypien has an opportunity to keep a regular spot in the lineup.

Rypien's development does reduce the need for Darcy Hordichuk in the enforcer role, though the 29-year-old is more apt to tangle with the heavyweights of the league and more than hold his own.

Mason Raymond's game is all about speed and he used it to create a lot of chances on his way to a career-best 25 goals and 53 points last season. To take the next step, the 24-year-old needs to play with more determination and consistency, but 2009-2010 was a breakthrough campaign.

Danish winger Jannik Hansen wasn't as effective as he'd been the previous season, getting off to a slow start after breaking a finger in a preseason fight with the Oilers' Gilbert Brule. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old has potential as a checking winger, with some offensive upside, because of his speed.

After spending most of 2008-2009 in the AHL, Tanner Glass made the most of his opportunity in Vancouver, dropping the gloves 15 times in 67 games and playing a relatively effective fourth-line role. It would seem that, on any given night, the Canucks wouldn't need all three of Glass, Rypien and Hordichuk in the lineup, but the trio does provide some depth and toughness.

Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood are notable free agents who may look for opportunities elsewhere, which means the Canucks at least need a third-line centre to bolster the lineup. Since Kesler is the second-line centre and responsible for primary checking duties, the Canucks can target a third-line centre with more of an offensive game.

If the Canucks don't feel that Cody Hodgson is ready, and that's possible since his back injury caused him to miss so much of last season, then veteran free agents like Matt Cullen, Mike Comrie or even ex-Canuck Brendan Morrison may be worthy replacements.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Christian Ehrhoff 83.64 $3.1M
Alexander Edler 73.89 $3.25M
Sami Salo 73.73 $3.5M
Kevin Bieksa 70.29 $3.75M
Andrew Alberts 64.57 $1.05M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Willie Mitchell 66.73 UFA $3.5M
Shane O'Brien 62.73 RFA $1.6M
Aaron Rome 57.28 UFA $525K

The Canucks couldn't have asked for anything more than what they received from Christian Ehrhoff, whose first season in Vancouver resulted in career-highs of 14 goals, 44 points and a plus-36 rating. He's an integral part of the power play and led the team with 22:47 of ice time per game.

24-year-old Alexander Edler has improved steadily and can be especially effective when he uses his size to his advantage which is, admitteldy, not often enough. Edler's combination of size, speed and puck-moving skills is rare, making him a strong building block for the defensive unit.

While Sami Salo has the ability to be a top-four defenceman -- another blueliner with good size, puck skills and a rocket shot -- but his most consistent feature may be that he will miss time due to injuries, playing more than 70 games just twice in 11 seasons, making his presence in the lineup almost a bonus.

At his best, Kevin Bieksa can also be an impact defenceman, providing a mix of skill and toughness, though his aggressiveness can get the best of him. Bieksa's also had the misfortune of having his his leg lacerated twice in the last three seasons, resulting in a lot of time missed, hindering his development.

Andrew Alberts struggled after coming over from Carolina at the trade deadline, but he's big and has generally been useful as part of a third pairing when he's not asked to do too much. He'll have to rebound next season.

Though he finished a career-best plus-15, Shane O'Brien struggled at times and his commitment has been questioned; a problem for a 26-year-old who relies on his ability to play on the edge if he's going to maximize his effectiveness.

Vancouver's defence clearly missed Willie Mitchell once he suffered a concussion in January, which means that, if he leaves, his spot must be filled if the Canucks are going to have a defence capable of challenging for a championship.

While a trade is certainly a possibility, free agents like Dan Hamhuis, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek or Henrik Tallinder may be options for the defensive shutdown role.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Roberto Luongo 79.10 $5.333M

Even though he won a gold medal with Canada at the Olympics, Roberto Luongo's crunch-time reputation took another hit after his second straight disappointing playoff performance.

The Canucks are committed (seemingly forever) to the 31-year-old goaltender, as he's signed through 2022, so he's going to be crucial to whether this team is going to ever achieve postseason success.

Expected to have a stronger backup next season, Luongo may face a lighter workload, in the hopes that he'll remain fresher for the playoffs.

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Andrew Raycroft 73.63 UFA $500K

Though Andrew Raycroft has been much-maligned since winning the Calder Trophy in 2003-2004, he was effective in a limited role as Luongo's backup last season, to the point that he should be able to land a backup job elsewhere next season.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Cory Schneider G Manitoba (AHL) 35-23-2, 2.51 GAA, .919 SVPCT, 60 GP
Cody Hodgson C Brampton (OHL) 8-12-20,+9, 13 GP
Michael Grabner RW Manitoba (AHL) 15-11-26,-2, 38 GP
Jordan Schroeder C Minnesota (WCHA) 9-19-28,-6, 37 GP
Anton Rodin RW Brynas (SEL) 1-4-5,even, 36 GP
Yann Sauve D Saint John (QMJHL) 7-29-36,+42, 61 GP
Kevin Connauton D Vancouver (WHL) 24-48-72,+4, 69 GP
Evan Oberg D Manitoba (AHL) 3-23-26,-13, 70 GP
Sergei Shirokov LW Manitoba (AHL) 22-23-45,-1, 76 GP
Eddie Lack G Brynas (SEL) 2.67 GAA, .911 SVPCT, 14 GP

After three years in the AHL, Cory Schneider is ready for a real chance in the NHL. He's struggled at times in his ten career NHL games, but he's excelled in the minors and is ready for a regular role as Luongo's backup.

Cody Hodgson was expected to make the Canucks last season, but struggled through a back injury that eventually sidelined him for most of the season, playing just 24 OHL games in the regular season and playoffs.

If Hodgson is fit for NHL duty, he'll bring some youthful energy and offensive skill to the Canucks.

Austrian winger Michael Grabner has scored 45 goals in 104 AHL games over the last two seasons and put up 11 points in 20 games with the Canucks, suggesting that he's ready for a regular spot in the lineup as well. A third line that includes both Hodgson and Grabner could be productive while not facing a great deal of pressure.

An unimpressive sophomore season at the University of Minnesota didn't seem to hamper Jordan Schroeder much as he managed 15 points in 17 AHL games at the end of the season and into the playoffs. Last year's first-round pick could probably use a year of development in Manitoba, but should be a scoring forward when he's ready to join the Canucks.

Skilled winger Anton Rodin has potential that belies his numbers in the Swedish Elite League. The 19-year-old has better showcased his offensive prowess in tournament play against those in his age group, so there is hope for the talented winger to develop into a scorer before he's ready for an NHL job.

Yann Sauve has good size and could be an effective defensive defenceman with some time in the minors. Consistency hasn't been Sauve's strong suit, but he does have the physical package to be an NHLer.

Kevin Connauton made a smooth transition to the Western Hockey League after his freshman season at Western Michigan, and his offensive numbers show that he knows what to do with the puck on his stick. Further development on his defensive game will improve his chances of reaching the NHL.

Signed following his sophomore season at Minnesota-Duluth, Evan Oberg is a mobile, puck-moving defenceman who led the Moose with 26 points last season. Unfortunately, his minus-13 rating also ranked last among defencemen on the AHL squad, so 22-year-old Oberg could still use some time to fill out and improve his play without the puck.

The star of last year's preseason, Sergei Shirokov finished second in scoring for Manitoba, but with only 45 points, he's not exactly breaking down the door to land a spot on a scoring line in Vancouver. The 24-year-old has finishing ability, but may need injuries to open up a spot in the lineup for him.

Though he only started 14 games as the backup to Panthers top prospect Jacob Markstrom, Eddie Lack has shown promise and the 22-year-old may have a real opportunity to show his stuff in Manitoba next season.

DRAFT
25th - Tyler Pitlick, Beau Bennett, Riley Sheahan.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canucks have approximately $45.9 M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 15 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top-four defenceman.

What I said the Canucks needed last year: Three top six forwards, one top nine forward, two defencemen, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? Mikael Samuelsson, Tanner Glass, Christian Ehrhoff, Mathieu Schneider, Andrew Raycroft.

TRADE MARKET Steve Bernier, Jannik Hansen, Andrew Alberts, Shane O'Brien.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 

The Sedins (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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